Op-Ed: The U.N. has to reform itself to bring peace to Ukraine
The English author H.G. Wells felt the need to call World War I “the war to end all wars.”
What prompted him to denounce war were the many horrors of that conflict, which included genocide and scores of civilian casualties.
History has proven Wells wrong time and time again. Yet his statement should not be read empirically, as if acknowledging the scale of the death and destruction of World War I would prevent all future armed conflict. Instead, his lesson from WWI is that no matter how many wars take place, we need to tirelessly work toward peace.
Fast forward about 100 years, and we see Russia committing atrocities in Ukraine such as those that shocked Wells.
Being in the inner circle is not restraining the Kremlin. It should be deprived of its standing in the international community.
Our international institutions are supposed to rein in such violence. Specifically, the United Nations’ mission includes securing peace and suppressing aggression.
Yet we are running up against a critical issue in the U.N.: the veto power of Security Council members. If one of the permanent members — France, Great Britain, Russia, China or the United States — finds some initiative that calls for coordinated international action to be contrary to their national interests, that country has the prerogative to cancel it. That is what has blocked international action in Ukraine: Although 11 of the 15 members of the Security Council voted in February to support a resolution to denounce the war, the resolution went nowhere because Russia vetoed it (China, India and the United Arab Emirates abstained).
A successful vote would not only have denounced the conflict but laid out concrete next steps to reestablish peace, including negotiations or launching a peacekeeping operation with soldiers and civilian personnel.
This failure doesn’t let the U.N. off the hook. Articles 39, 41 and 42 of its charter call upon Security Council members to decide when peace is threatened or has been breached and then address the situation — as it did with some success in Liberia, where, in the aftermath of the civil war, U.N. personnel from various countries worked on reforming the military and police, reducing HIV/AIDS transmission and creating programs for the country’s youth.
The promise of the U.N. endures in this mandate to facilitate on peace. What needs to change is the Security Council. And change to the U.N. is possible. We have seen it in the past.
Less than 20 years after the U.N. was created, the organization increased the number of non-permanent members of the Security Council from six to 10. Although non-permanent members lack veto powers and serve for only two years without the chance to be reelected, the change successfully widened participation by including more countries from different regions.
Another reform took place in 2005, when the General Assembly voted to give the 54-member Economic and Social Council more responsibilities, including assessing international development and the power to convene ad hoc meetings on humanitarian issues. The council has since used this power to support reconstruction efforts in Haiti following the earthquake that devastated that country in 2021.
Still, the most significant change in international institutions was the unlikely creation of the U.N. itself out of the failure of its predecessor, the League of Nations.
Ukraine, with international help, needs to begin data gathering on Russian atrocities before evidence gets lost and victims scatter or disappear.
The shock Wells experienced after World War I was shared by leaders such as U.S. President Wilson, who helped found the league — the first sincere attempt to bring countries together formally to resolve problems through diplomacy. But Wilson’s hope fell apart when the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the league charter, removing the emerging superpower from the organization during its vulnerable origins.
Participating countries ultimately failed to find common ground. For one thing, they initially excluded the Soviet Union, later allowed it as a member and then expelled it for invading Finland.
The league’s failure to cooperate made it incapable of stopping aggression by the Axis powers in the 1930s. It took the Second World War for some leaders to see the error of their ways.
In 1941, Great Britain and the United States met to create the Atlantic Charter, proclaiming that states should not increase their territory at the expense of others and that governments were instead tasked to develop economically, cooperate and disarm.
Particularly relevant to the U.N.‘s current challenges, as the U.S. and Britain moved to expand their charter globally, Russia had to be won over. Stalin feared that Soviet interests would not be represented in the new institution. So the founding countries developed the Security Council veto partly to reassure the Soviets. (Roosevelt also told Stalin to wait until after the 1944 election to take Poland, a compromise meant to entice Stalin.)
Globalization interwove economies of very different nations, now coming apart as autocracies ally with the Kremlin and democracies stand with Ukraine.
When the U.N. charter was signed in San Francisco, in 1945, 50 countries — including the Soviet Union — agreed. It is this spirit of maneuvering for peace that should drive Security Council reform. There needs to be a way to overturn the veto — for instance, by allowing an override if two-thirds of the General Assembly decides to, and/or if four out of five Security Council members agree.
Such a change requires approval from not only two-thirds of the General Assembly — which has already voted against Russia’s invasion — but every member of the Security Council. To bring Russia along, other countries need to issue a credible threat where it matters most: natural gas. Europe, with the U.S. and perhaps major gas exporters such as Qatar, should completely cut off natural gas exports from Russia to any part of the world if it continues to block Security Council actions, including support for a veto override.
Other countries, including the U.S., will have to accept that their future interests would be served by having to cooperate instead of acting unilaterally via veto. Perhaps the rising cost of gas and grain, just one consequence of the U.N.’s impotence on Russia, will make the U.S. rethink the value of unchecked veto power.
H.G. Wells was right — no matter how challenging, peace is essential. The Security Council is tasked to uphold it. With the Ukraine-Russia conflict again showing the horrors of war, the U.N.’s future now depends on whether it can reform its own structure.
Anthony Pahnke is associate professor of international relations at San Francisco State University.
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